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Storytime on the Beach

I ran into a remarkable bit of trouble trying to explain to people that I, now finally finished with the first round of new hire training, was “on the beach.” More than a few of my friends (even some new hire consultants! — they were of course, at rival firms) thought the phrase was meant literally. So, for the record:

Being “on the beach” means that one is in between cases — i.e. one has not been assigned work yet. This isn’t quite the same as being on vacation; I was still expected to be “on call” and I even went into the office to do some things that training prevented me from being able to do (i.e. setup voicemail, fill out time and expense sheets, install printers, play around with some of the stuff my firm gave me, mess around with the laptop they gave me, etc.).

While messing around with said laptop while on the beach (hopefully by now, the attentive non-short-term-memory-defective reader realizes that it doesn’t mean I was physically on a beach), I stumbled on a very funny story (from the business blog the Cenek Report) which is sadly based on two real companies. The story illustrates, in a very Dilbert-esque fashion, some of the pitfalls of what I can only call “American management culture” and also demonstrates why the best consulting firms attempt to be very discriminating in their selection of client:

A Japanese company ( Toyota ) and an American company (General Motors) decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River.  Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race.  On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat.  A management team composed of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action. Their conclusion:  The Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 8 people steering and 1 person rowing.

Feeling a deeper study was in order, American management hired a consulting company and paid them a large amount of money for a second opinion.  They advised, of course, that too many people were steering the boat, while not enough people were rowing.

Not sure of how to utilize that information, but wanting to prevent another loss to the Japanese, the rowing team’s management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 3 area steering superintendents and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager.

They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 1 person rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the ‘Rowing Team Quality First Program,’ with meetings, dinners and free pens for the rower. The new change initiative also included plans for getting new paddles, canoes and other equipment, plus extra vacation days for practices and bonuses.

The next year the Japanese won by two miles.

Humiliated, the American management laid off the rower for poor performance, halted development of a new canoe, sold the paddles, and canceled all capital investments for new equipment. The money saved was distributed to the senior executives as bonuses and the next year’s racing team was outsourced to India.

Published in Blog

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